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Chicago: Tourism Re-Imaging

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Certain images of Chicago become ingrained. Before the First World War the 'muckraking journalists' such as George K Turner, Lincoln Steffens and the Briton, W T Stead, reported on its corruption and low life. Later, the gangland crime of Al Capone fed newspaper and radio features round the world. Then came a Broadway play and a Hollywood film about the murder trial of Roxie Hart, a story which gained greater prominence as the more recent musical film "Chicago". The city was by no means the only crime-ridden metropolis on earth - but it was the one which most combined crime with slick and sleazy glamour. However, it just isn't like that, as any tourist can discover.

Image: Chicago Lakeside panorama

Chicago is a cultured and attractive place, a centre for world-class theatre, music, art and education besides being the most important mid-American commercial focus, transport interchange and conference venue. Crime exists, of course, as do many other social and environmental problems, but for over a century Chicago has pioneered a high level of civic life which many other cities around the globe have tried to replicate. Visitors can see for themselves to what extent it has succeeded, whether they are business people, city managers or cultural leaders - or ordinary visitors out to explore: they are all tourists of one kind or another.

Image: Chicago Grant Park

Much of the city's development and therefore modern form have come from 'The Plan of Chicago' which was published in 1909, but whose origins in a sense went back to the Great Fire of Chicago of 1871 which burned for 36 hours and destroyed most of downtown Chicago. Rebuilding began, wooden structures in the city centre being banned, and the first steel-skeleton skyscraper was put up. The city expanded fast, but in 1873 a Bread Riot led to the deaths of many people at the hands of the police trying to quell the unrest. 1877 saw a Railroad Strike – police shot thirty demonstrators. 1886 had a demonstration for shorter working hours – two labourers killed by the police, and then a bomb thrown at the officers led to another riot in which seven policemen were killed – four rioters were executed as a result. Violence was becoming the trademark of the city. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was one event trying to improve prosperity and the general standing of the city: the Art Institute (1879) and the founding of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1889) had already happened. The population had passed a million by 1890. And then in 1903 a dreadful fire destroyed the Iroqouis Theatre where the doors opened inward and the press of people frantically trying to escape jammed them shut: over 600 died.

The Merchants Club, later to be the Commercial Club of Chicago, initiated a project in 1906 which resulted in the Plan of Chicago. This proposed the improvement of the quality of life of the city and its and physical beautification, especially reclaiming the lake front for the public, enlarging parks and public playgrounds, and the scientific development of the main transport routes between the different parts of the city. Daniel Hudson Burnham took charge of the development of the plan, without demanding any payment, assisted by Edward H. Bennett. In 1909 the plan was published by the Commercial Club, the first comprehensive development plan for any American city.

Above: the Buckingham Fountain within the setting of Grant Park next to Lake Michigan. And yes, those are cabbages in the floral display: they're attractive additions to the varied shapes present.

Image: Chicago City features

The first impression - after that of the skyscrapers rising above you - at street level is of some of the characteristic details. As a centre of the meat processing industry for animals brought in from the west Chicago gained another reputation for hard industrial conditions which most tourists will no longer see. The bronze statue above left, outside the Chicago Cultural Center, is the nearest most people get to a steer. Nearby stands the Chicago Theater, opened in 1921 and newly restored to its opulent glory. The sign above the marquee (the frame where the current show is named by attachable letters) has become the city's logo. It is shown as such at the foot of this page. Much of the life of the central area is carried on the El - the elevated railroad - which loops in and out along its tracks raised above the street. Many a crime movie has drawn on its industrial girders to supply some noisy atmosphere to a tense plot.

Image: Marshall Field composite

Marshall Field was one of the most important of all Chicago men and helped lay the foundations of this part of the city as a retail centre for the mid-west. Another Chicago store, Sears Roebuck, created the mail order business of nineteenth century Americans as they settled way out west and far from city stores. Field coined the slogan “Give the lady what she wants” as the rule for selling to those who flocked through his doors. They benefited, he profited, and the city prospered, especially as he funded the Field Museum to house objects from the 1893 World’s Fair – that he had also helped organise. His own mansion was big, but not ostentatious, and when he rode to his shop in a carriage he would have it stop short and walk the last few blocks so as to arrive like his employees. Marshall Field's store is a city institution as well as a landmark of design.

Image: Field Museum scenes and interpreters

Within the Field Museum are said to be 20 million objects of natural history, only one per cent of which are on display. Through the entrance doors and beyond the ticket counter are some of the biggest – first, a pair of long-tusked elephants clearly not enjoying each other’s company, and then the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. 42 feet long and 13 feet high. Known rather incongruously as ‘Sue’ after the geologist who discovered her in South Dakota in 1990, this beast appears not to enjoy anyone’s company, which must be part of its attraction to the public. Despite being 67 million years old the ‘tyrannical lizard’ qualities which give the animal its name are all on show today. This is claimed the most complete T. rex ever found, and it’s all on display. Apparently the head is a cast from the original, which would have been too heavy for the steel armature upon which the rest of the monster is mounted.

When I visited, children were exploring a reconstruction of a Pawnee Lodge. A member of the Museum staff was telling them about the Pawnee way of life and answering questions. Leading off from this display were narrow galleries with big cases, big enough to show native costumes, a stuffed bison, masks and smaller tribal items. Totem poles stood in rows. I heard later from a couple of middle-aged Chicago residents that the Museum, which they loved dearly, had had to move with the times and create more impressive displays for modern kids brought up on a diet of TV and interactive computers. The galleries were darker, more mysterious and full of large-scale exhibits including the Pawnee Lodge. The range of objects on display previously, which reflected the rich cultural variety of the native Americans, have given way to smaller collections of the most impressive objects, chosen for their impact on today’s young minds. Perhaps the day I visited wasn’t typical, but apart from groups of children in the Pawnee Lodge there were only a few in the whole native American gallery: they were all in the main hall being scared witless by a Tyrannosaurus named Sue.

It’s this kind of show which gives the lie to that statement that the United States doesn’t have much history. It does, but it didn’t all stem from the fifty 'European' states which united to form a new country post-1776.

Image: Field Museum, Chicago composite

The main hall of the Field Museum has the dinosaurs and some other large items - such as totem poles. The entrance, ticketing area and information desk (far end) lead in to this hall, and the specialised galleries all lead off from it. A model of a native village; some children's activity assembling a world map from cut-out shapes; and the imposing south entrance are the other photos.

Image: Chicago Science and Industry Museum

The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry occupies one of the buildings put up for the Exposition of 1893. Only it wasn’t actually put up in 1893. Charles Atwood, the architect, did what most designers for world expositions did and used a framework covered in plaster. The structure stayed in use until 1920, became derelict, and was then rescued by Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Co, the Chicago mail order company. He organised a rebuild in stone that cost several million dollars of his and other contributors’ money, and after an 11-year effort it was opened in 1933 as the new museum.

The collection is rather eclectic: it is heavy on transport, including a huge model of the railroad between Chicago and Seattle and a replica of the Wright Brothers' plane hung from the ceiling. There are other industrial and scientific galleries - a coal mine and a display about the human heart, for example. A more odd exhibit is 'Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle', which was originally made for a rich collector of doll’s houses as the castle of her dreams, with help from a film set designer named Horace Jackson and half a million dollar’s worth of 1935 cash. This medieval fantasy therefore sits inside an 1890s fantasy, appearing to have little connection with science or industry beyond that of the craftsmen and lighting experts who knew how to turn fantasies into Hollywood film sets. Colleen Moore used her Fairy Castle to raise money for children’s charities by touring it around the USA in the 1930s, bringing in around $650,000. After the war she met the Director of the Museum of Science and Industry, Major Lenox Lohr, at yet another exhibition, the Chicago Railroad Fair. Over dinner in a directors’ railroad coach at the exhibition he persuaded her to give it to the Museum to show permanently.

Image: Chicago Science and Industry Museum exhibit

Another example of eclecticism: this complex 'action toy' is an advertisement for Switzerland. It has numerous models and gizmos which represent Swiss tourist attractions or features. The makers call it a "Jollyball" and claim it as the biggest of pin-ball machines. That old stereotype, the American obession with superlatives, is brought into play - it is said to have achieved a citation in the Guinness Book of Records. Does this give museums a bad name, or is it a sensible way of attracting new visitors into an otherwise arcane world of museums? After all, I got hooked in the 1950s pushing buttons at the London Science Museum to make model locomotive wheels go round.

Image: Untouchables locations plus Chicago Theatre

The sign on the Chicago Theatre sums up many things about the city: glamour, show business, publicity, the glitziness of the so-called jazz age and roaring thirties, dragging in low-life and high life in equal measure with dashes of violence, drinking and sex tipped in to the swirling mix. The very name ‘Chicago’ labels a '70s Broadway musical now turned into a film which laid it all out again for a new generation.

About four blocks south of the theatre is the heart of the Brian de Palma film "The Untouchables" territory. South La Salle Street was used for one of the main publicity posters, with Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith surrounded by the tall skyscrapers of the city. The four men carry shotguns, the camera angle is low and they look as though they mean business. They were a mixed team – ethnically: men from Norwegian, Irish and Italian backgrounds (the Smith character, Oscar Wallace, is fictitious though partly based on an Inland Revenue agent called Frank Wilson, who pinned the gangster down through accounting misdemeanours) – and professionally, as they included a Treasury Department agent, an experienced cop, a rookie cop, the accountant. So it was effectively the accountant who finally got Al Capone, not the team of four Hollywood Heroes in the poster. Brian de Palma got his well-deserved Oscar, although history suffered a little. One of the glories of the movie is the arrest of Capone’s accountant in a shoot-out in Union Station, where a baby in a carriage bumps down a grand staircase in slow motion as the agents fire their guns around it. It’s the Russian classic silent move Battleship Potemkin where troops shoot at revolutionary crowds, transposed to Chicago cops versus robbers. This city had its own history of shooting rioters. It was used to the law of the gun. De Palma’s gave the drama the setting of the station with its imposing arrivals hall full of columns and grand arches.

Facing the Chicago Board of Trade Building at the end of La Salle Street, the Rookery office building is on the left. In the film it was, externally, at least, the headquarters of the Untouchables. On the right is the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company, which stood in for the outside of a failed raid by the law agents at the outset of their campaign. The Rookery is a red stone-faced building of 1886 by Daniel Burnham and Root, like many Chicago constructions very heavy in scale on the ground floor, but with more gracefulness higher up. Rusticated blocks are interspersed with geometrically patterned stones around the entrance. On the façade of the next floor up, columns give vertical stresses and a lighter feel. The name “Rookery” and the heavy ground floor architecture gives a Victorian cast to the block reminiscent of Fagin’s hideout in ‘Oliver Twist’ – another place at the heart of a criminal underworld. It is misleading: inside is a lighter world of white marble, gold leaf and iron work in a remodelling by Frank Lloyd Wright of 1907. The odd name of this building is not because it was in any way infested by felons, but because an earlier City Hall and adjacent water tower which stood here made good nesting for a flock of pigeons.

The crime of the speakeasy might have its modern day counterpart, but what "The Untouchables" and Chicago portrayed was then and this is now. Chicago has 2.8 million population, just as mixed as any world city, with all kinds represented, good and bad, and from a wider range of backgrounds than most. It looks like a city in which the present counts much more than the past and the future counts for even more. Relying on the media and word of mouth brings only a tiny bit of the truth, whatever that might be. You have to become a visitor, the only activity that let’s you decide for yourself. A tourist, who can use all five senses and explore all three dimensions: and that will only be a beginning in getting to a real sense of this place.

Image: John G Shedd Aquarium composite

Water from Lake Michigan flows into the tanks of the John G Shedd Aquarium, which perches (sorry - that slipped in) on the edge of the Lake. It's close to the other attractions along South Lake Shore Drive. It opened in 1930 in a typically classical building that helped Chicago counter the more negative images of the times.

Image: Chicago Lakeside composite

Not Chicago-on-Sea but Chicago on the Lake: city dwellers and tourists from urban zones can breathe the fresh air of the open waters just as they can on the 'real' coast. Trips on the Lake by tour boats or sailing ships are escapes into a different environment. The spreading white sails of the schooner contrast with the rigid towers on shore. It's all clean and fresh and sparkly - though this has been a heavily polluted lake which along these shores could only support a few fish like perch, caught and sold as a Friday meal in restaurants. Before the First World War the Chicago River was reversed to flush pollution aways from the Lake and into the Mississippi system. Even earlier, in the mid-nineteenth century, a sewage system was constructed above ground as whole streets and buidlings were raised above the new network. It is said that the Tremont Hotel, then Chicago's largest, was lifted while still in use and without a single pane of glass being cracked.

Image: Congress Plaza Hotel industrial action

This - July 2005 - was Chicago expressing its democratic rights. Since June 2003 a dispute had been going on about pay and conditions at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Here, a crowd of red-T-shirted young people was marching around in a loop outside, encouraged by a raucous leader on a loudhailer. It was Sunday morning and the streets not yet aired. Most hotel guests might be enjoying breakfast over-easy, but not those of the Congress Plaza. It was loud. The employees were venting their anger in a series of chants, cries and counter-cries which very few could miss. It was all peaceful, at least in a legal sense – no windows being smashed or hotel flags burned or strikers shot as happened in the nineteenth century. And in 1968 Grant Park, just behind me, was the scene of anti-Vietnam war riots at the time of the Democratic Convention in the city. Chicago had looked riot-torn on TV then, yet the rest of the city continued on its urbane way. The scale of someone’s grievances and the way they react to them can appear way out of context in media reporting. The distant audience loses the all-important perspective and might under-react or over-react accordingly. Maybe that is why Chicago, or any other place, picks up a misleading image. Maybe that is why being a tourist is so important to understanding the world – go see for yourself.

A police car arrived. The demonstrators huddled together in conference, then stood around with their banners to protest quietly. Perhaps the police officer had said “OK, guys and gals, you made your point. Now it’s Sunday and let these poor people sleep in a bit, why don’t you”. Or perhaps the officer might have threatened to throw them in the slammer.

Image: Chicago Nuclear Fission monument

Round a corner in the University District a strange cast-metal shape stands at the centre of a broad granite plinth. The shape looks like a giant size bollard that a liner might use to moor against a quay, but one with holes in it such as an equally giant metal-eating moth might make. It is a reminder that just here, in a shed underneath a sports stadium, there took place in 1942 the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Within a few years a fat metal bomb caused Hiroshima to disintegrate in a blinding flash of nuclear fission. Maybe the shape standing here looked a bit like such a bomb stood up on its fins. Either way, its a monument to human achievement and human destructiveness - you pays your money and takes your choice. Is it a tourist attraction? Not much of one. But it might be far, far more significant than Al Capone and Marshall Field. This is the real Chicago, in the real world.

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Image: Chicago Theatre marquee

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